Challenges for top performing education systems

Bookmark and Share

Education Ministers from seven top-performing school systems gathered at the inaugural International Education Roundtable (IER) to discuss how education systems could continuously improve, in order to equip students with the skills and attributes required for a fast changing and unpredictable future.

The Ministers noted that certain fundamentals were common across top performing education systems. Further, international benchmarking tests, while not comprehensive in measuring educational outcomes across systems, had provided the impetus for countries and territories to systematically seek out useful lessons and experiences from others. This process of learning from one another and adopting or adapting generalisable lessons had in turn helped to enhance performance.

They agreed that to sustain and enhance performance, education systems needed to focus on attracting individuals with the right attitudes and aptitude to become educators and providing them with the best tools, including information and communication technologies (ICT), to do their jobs well. For all schools to improve there was a need for a rigorous system of performance management, transparent data and sharing of best practices.

International education roundtable

A joint project by the Singapore Ministry of Education and McKinsey & Company, the Roundtable, held in Singapore from 6-8 July, was attended by Ministers and senior government officials from Australia (Victoria), Canada (Alberta), China, Hong Kong, Sweden, and the US. (Please see below for a full list of attendees.)

Under the theme “Top performing education systems: expectations and challenges for the future”, the Education Ministers discussed what top-performing systems should do to nurture educated citizens, and how to mobilise education systems to scale up successful innovations.

Singapore Education Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen and Sir Michael Barber, Partner at McKinsey & Company and former Chief Advisor on Delivery to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, chaired discussions on future challenges in education, with a focus on school leadership and the teaching profession, as well as the impact of ICT on teaching and learning.

Preparing for the future

The IER participants noted that in an era of globalisation and rapid changes, education systems, too, must keep up with the times, and constantly look ahead into the future, Foremost on their minds was how they could get young citizens ready for the future. In developing a strategy for the future, engaging and enthusing the community was essential.

In Alberta, an extensive public dialogue would take place across the province this year, on their vision for the educated Albertan 20 years from now. China too had started a massive effort to solicit suggestions and views for an education outline plan for 2020 spearheaded by Premier Wen Jiabao. Good platforms for engaging stakeholders in education, as seen in Hong Kong, would further strengthen the partnerships between schools and the community and build strong public support for the education reform.

The Ministers noted that, as economies transformed from being industrial-based to becoming knowledge-based, there would be a transition from education for a small elite to education or all, and to high standards.

Most jobs to be created would require not just basic education, but also some form of post-secondary education and training. A diversity of pathways, all of high quality, was needed to provide quality education to all. Countries such as China had made innovation and quality their top priorities, even as they expanded access to disadvantaged communities.

Getting the basics right

Equipping students with a strong foundation in the basics, as seen in New Zealand’s teaching of literacy skills, and the strong focus on Mathematics and Science in several East Asian countries, would remain critical.

The Ministers agreed that students of the future would continue to require a strong knowledge base, while striking a better balance between the teaching of content knowledge and the nurturing of essential attributes such as cross-cultural communication skills, creativity and ICT literacy.

These attributes would help them to work across geographic borders, critically analyse information from diverse sources, and solve multi-dimensional  problems. Strong ethical underpinnings would enable all to live and contribute in increasingly diverse communities. Learning how to learn would help them adapt to change and remain productive citizens. In the continued quest for excellence, some education systems would need to re-emphasise the building of a knowledge base while others would aspire to the nurturing of thinking and learning skills.

A fraternity of educators

The Roundtable re-affirmed the need to invest in educators and educational leaders. Teaching must be valued by society and teachers recognised in both intrinsic and extrinsic ways, as seen in top-performing systems such as Finland and South Korea. For good teachers to deliver high-quality teaching, they would need the support of a nurturing school environment, high-quality curricular materials, and access to community resources.

Emphasis should be placed on continuous professional development, as in the case of Sweden and Australia (Victoria), and fostering a culture of learning and collaboration among educators, as seen in Japan. The fraternity of educators should evolve a consensus around good professional practice. Professionalising the teaching force and resourcing this well would build pride in the profession and enhance job satisfaction.

Educators must have high expectations of their students and of themselves, and be able to adapt well to the changing environment. The most able among them who wish to take the next step in leadership, should aspire to become school leaders and lead innovations in their schools. As instructional leaders, school leaders should place due emphasis on good professional practices and help their teachers level up their craft.

Leveraging on ICT

The Ministers noted that the learning process must be constantly updated, to reflect technology advances and to prepare young people for the workplace of the future. They underscore the potential for ICT to improve quality learning in the classroom and nurture future-ready citizens, and acknowledged innovations that were taking place across schools in Australia (Victoria), Singapore and the USA.

The Roundtable affirmed the need for clear strategy formulation and alignment to learning outcomes, before education systems committed themselves to making significant investments in hardware or software. The Ministers advocated judicious investment in meaningful integration of technology into the curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. Teaching and learning processes had to change, in tandem with the introduction of ICT. The Ministers saw the need to change the mind-sets of teachers and students as the key to success.

Assessing performance/ sharing best practice

To scale up school-based innovation across each territory, there was a need to put in place appropriate school performance management systems. For instance, England had an independent inspectorate (Ofsted) which was directly accountable to the British Parliament, to monitor the quality of teaching and learning. Processes to collect and analyse feedback and data, and platforms for sharing of best practices were also important. A positive spiral of improvement could result from good practices being widely understood and shared.

The Ministers emphasised the importance of effective and even implementation. They saw extensive public consultations conducted in participating countries and territories as an integral part of good implementation. In addition, timely monitoring and evaluation would provide the basis for refinement and review of policies.

The Ministers agreed that there was value in establishing stronger educational collaborations between education systems. They noted that regional and international collaborative networks for policymakers, educators and students would enhance the spread of best practices and innovations in the field of education, including educational technology.

Moving forward

The Ministers agreed that the IER served as a useful platform to exchange ideas, to re-affirm sound policies and practices that had led to good performances, and to learn about the need to customise and adapt ideas to fit local conditions. The Ministers agreed to continue the dialogue that had started with the inaugural IER, through a variety of channels. In addition, to ensure that the learning could take place at the professional level, the Ministers tasked their officials to develop new platforms for collaboration, in particular networks for Principals to exchange best practices, and overseas exchanges for teachers and students.

Learning points and key insights gathered from the discussion would also be extended beyond the participants of the IER. A post-conference report to map out key strategies for systems seeking to deliver quality outcomes in education will be shared with other Education Ministers, researchers and policy-makers interested in raising the standards of education not in one or few schools but across all schools. The realisation of this aspiration will lay a firm foundation for the citizens of tomorrow.